Debates about same-sex relationships and marriage have become an unavoidable hot-button issue in the political arena these past few years. Moral deliberation aside, however, new research suggests that gay couples “have a great deal to teach everyone else about marriage and relationships”, as author Tara Parker-Hope says in this interesting New York Times piece yesterday. She writes:
“Most studies show surprisingly few differences between committed gay couples and committed straight couples, but the differences that do emerge have shed light on the kinds of conflicts that can endanger heterosexual relationships. The findings offer hope that some of the most vexing problems are not necessarily entrenched in deep-rooted biological differences between men and women. And that, in turn, offers hope that the problems can be solved.”
In a 2000 study in Vermont, soon after same-sex civil unions were legalized there, researchers surveyed almost 1,000 heterosexual and homosexual couples about “common causes of marital strife like housework, sex, and money”. When the results came in, same-sex relationships scored as far more “egalitarian” than heterosexual ones:
“In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.”
While this result might not surprise you, the next finding is really interesting: although the gay and lesbian couples surveyed experienced conflict at about the same rate as the heterosexual couples, the same-sex couples reported a higher level of happiness in their relationships.
According to Parker-Hope, this finding suggests that it’s the inequality inherent in opposite-sex relationships that ends up causing problems, not the amount of conflict. She follows with a quote San Diego State University professor of women’s studies Esther D. Rothblum, who nicely summarizes the idea behind this study:
“Heterosexual married women live with a lot of anger about having to do the tasks not only in the house but in the relationship. That’s very different than what same-sex couples and heterosexual men live with.”
Heterosexual couples can also learn a thing or two from gay couples when it comes to conflict resolution, research suggests:
“One well-known study used mathematical modeling to decipher the interactions between committed gay couples. The results, published in two 2003 articles in The Journal of Homosexuality, showed that when same-sex couples argued, they tended to fight more fairly than heterosexual couples, making fewer verbal attacks and more of an effort to defuse the confrontation.
Controlling and hostile emotional tactics, like belligerence and domineering, were less common among gay couples.
Same-sex couples were also less likely to develop an elevated heartbeat and adrenaline surges during arguments. And straight couples were more likely to stay physically agitated after a conflict.
“When they got into these really negative interactions, gay and lesbian couples were able to do things like use humor and affection that enabled them to step back from the ledge and continue to talk about the problem instead of just exploding,” said Robert W. Levenson, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.”
Again, no surprises there. “Humor and affection” certainly sound like a more pleasant way of dealing with conflict than “exploding” in anger, no?
So, the point of all this research? It appears that heterosexual couples would do well to emulate their peers in same-sex relationships, who share power equally, employ respectful, effective problem-solving techniques, and are happier as a result. No one can argue with that.